Properly trained, a man can be dog's best friend.
— Corey Ford
On a Sunday morning in February 2008, the owner of a two-month old Belgian Malinois mix decided the puppy needed to be put down.
In an e-mail from the owner, "Judy J.," that became part of the subsequent Houston Police Department's Office of Inspector General report, Albert's last hours were described thusly:
"We fell asleep together on the couch, but I eventually put him in his bed with Roy, who was waiting on him. This morning, the pneumonia has totally taken over his body. When I went to get him up this morning, he was laying on his side in a puddle of clear secretions, hardly able to breathe and not walking at all. The final sign to me that he's had enough. And yes, his eyes are telling me that it is time. We've got him bundled up in a basket and I'll get him into BARC as soon as they open....Right now, his breathing is extremely congested, but he responds every time we sit next to him and pet him. Roy keeps trying to climb in the basket with him to take care of him as he has been doing over the weeks."
The next movements are summarized by Gil Costas, the part-time Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care veterinarian who filed the complaint.
"This foster mother arrived at the shelter shortly after the gates were opened to the fostering public. [BARC opens to the public at noon on Sundays]. Per her own admission, she had been waiting at the gate since 11 a.m. Other foster mother [sic] attests to having seen this woman with the dying puppy in the basket before noon. She was standing in front of the immunization clinic, right under the cameras....When the foster mother got to see the veterinary technician, she was carrying a moribund puppy in a basket. She asked to see the veterinarian on duty."
The vet on duty was David Paul Rundell, who was working without a state-mandated controlled substance registration, meaning he was not permitted by the state of Texas to euthanize animals. But we'll get to that later. Right now, we've got a dying puppy on our hands.
Costas's complaint continues: "The foster [mother] insisted in speaking with the veterinarian, who visibly showed his displeasure for the interruption...Dr. Rundell left the room, the tech allowed the foster mother to say goodbye to her puppy, and then he did as he was told. He took the puppy to the loading dock area and placed him on the chain link cage adjacent to the euthanasia room, expecting that such euthanasia would be done expediently. No other cages were available at that time, since the kennel attendant was hosing down the stackable cages. In the middle of the afternoon, this puppy was witnessed by BARC employees having seizures while he laid on a cold cement floor. As per Dr. Rundell, euthanasia was performed by him after closing to the public (4 p.m. on Sundays)."
When Rundell caught wind of Costas's complaint, he knew where it was coming from. It was retribution, as far as he was concerned, and he wasn't going to hang. For one thing, as he would point out in his sworn affidavit, the puppy was not that sick. So it didn't need immediate euthanization, which is why it shouldn't bother anyone that Rundell enjoyed one of his customary cigar breaks while the thing waited around for the needle.
And if it came down to it, Rundell was going to cash in his chips. And he made it loud and clear, in his memo to his supervisor, Chief of Veterinary Staff Eunice Ohashiegbula-Iwunze.
"This complaint is another specious attack on me by Costas," Rundell wrote in the memo. "Costas has made numerous complaints against me, all of which have been dismissed...That this complaint was filed after I gave the Bureau Chief evidence of falsifying medical records, altering city records, and violating city ordinances and shelter policies cannot be a coincidence. If any action is taken against me, I will be forced to seek 'whistle-blower' protection."
There, he said it. The dreaded W-word. Rundell knew it would raise hackles; the city in 2000 lost a whistle-blowing lawsuit filed by a vet tech who said he was fired after he objected to dismal conditions in the animal shelter. The $875,000 payment was bad enough, but the real public relations nightmare occurred eight years later when eight dogs baked to death in the back of an animal control truck while the truck's driver enjoyed a leisurely lunch. The malfunctioning air-conditioning unit responsible for the dogs' excruciating deaths was one of the things the whistle-blower had complained about for years.
That all made the poor folks at BARC really worried for a good week or two, as elected officials stomped their feet and demanded changes. Vague allegations of animal abuse and neglect are one thing — they're easy to ignore, and, frankly, have been raised by animal welfare advocates since BARC's inception. But if you're an elected official in Houston, the image of dogs furiously clawing their cages as the temperature rises and rises — that's really something you can get behind. It's like saying you're against child abuse and terrorist attacks. And at the end of the day, you can go home after saying everything and doing nothing.
The only downside of the do-nothing-and-just-hope-it-goes-away approach is that, if you're an elected official, you will have to occasionally endure rants by animal welfare advocates who continually raise allegations. And some of them can be persistent. Recently, a bunch of them raised $8,000 to hire a nationally recognized "no-kill" shelter consultant to assess BARC. The idea was to bring in Nathan Winograd, author of Redemption, the bible of the no-kill movement, so he could suggest ways to vastly reduce the shelter's euthanization rate and increase buy-in from the community. Winograd would have done what he did for other shelters: release a no-holds-barred public report detailing the shelter's strengths and weaknesses. As it turns out, the City of Houston did not want this: Winograd was told that, if hired, he was not allowed to reveal his findings to the public. Not surprisingly, Winograd did not respond well to a pre-emptive muzzle. Negotiations went south. Winograd will not be assessing BARC.
It was a coup for the city, which will now be spared the additional drubbing. Stifling dissent is preferable to enacting change because, as ridiculous and naive as it sounds, the most obvious is still the most explanatory: Animals cannot vote. Protecting dogs and cats from city employees accused of falsifying records and much worse will not get you the cushy mayor's chair. It will not get you a senate seat. If there were political percentage in fixing BARC, it would've been done the first time someone sent up a flare saying the facility was a festering sore of incompetence, neglect, mismanagement and cruelty.
So, if you happen to be an elected official reading this right now, here's your cue to put down the paper and move on to something else. But if you happen to be a resident of Houston who cares about animals, or about how your tax dollars are spent, you might want to read on.
There are probably less pleasant places the city could have located the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care. The slums of Mumbai come to mind. Antarctica, perhaps.
Politically, though, 2700 Evella Street in the Fifth Ward makes sense. It is not an affluent neighborhood. No one who can contribute significantly to campaign coffers has to drive by it every day. The only people who have to see the trucks come and go are the occupants of the splintering shotgun shacks nearby and the adults who mill about the middle of the major cross street with no jobs to keep them busy during the weekday afternoon.
Adjacent businesses offer views of mountains of crushed concrete, gigantic rust-flecked fuel tanks and endless rows of stacked pallets. Not every street is clearly marked, so a first-timer might get lost trying to navigate toward the shelter, whose main building is a gigantic dome. Exactly why it was built as a dome is unclear, although spokeswoman Kathy Barton says it was the singular vision of former BARC Director Robert Armstrong.
Clearly, Armstrong, who went on to write supernatural crime novels involving his alter ego, Houston Animal Control Director Duncan MacDonell, did not believe his skill set was limited to veterinary medicine. He not only had a little Dean Koontz in him, but there was some Frank Gehry too, and his dome would be the envy of municipal animal shelters across the country, because a dome would better integrate the heating-ventilation-and-air-conditioning and sprinkler systems, making for a consistently cool environment. Fortunately for Armstrong, he was long retired before shelter employees would have to deal with frequently malfunctioning air-conditioning.
The shelter operates under the control of the city's Health and Human Services Department, a massive bureaucracy with only one public affairs officer, Kathy Barton. Barton has her work cut out for her. She not only has to field calls from a ton of reporters every time a new allegation surfaces at BARC, she has to field questions for every other office in the department. But BARC can be especially problematic, especially since employees there haven't really figured out how to use the new software system, called Chameleon, as both Barton and interim director Barbara McGill admit. This makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly how many animals go in and out of BARC on a regular basis.
Perhaps the best numbers can be found in the 2005 Report of the Mayor's Animal Protection Task Force. The architects of that report had difficulty finding historical numbers as well, since "until November 2004, BARC did not track total animal intake."
However, the report estimated an 80 percent euthanasia rate. "In fiscal year 2005, for example, BARC received approximately 26,243 animals and euthanized 21,214." Forty percent of the animals are euthanized "off the truck," meaning they don't stick around long enough for potential adoption or owner redemption.
Per the report, "BARC explains its high euthanasia rate on the ground that the overwhelming majority of the pets it receives are not adoptable. But the task force found that BARC has no policy guiding the distinction between 'adoptable' and 'unadoptable' pets, and instead has a strong bias in favor of euthanasia."
Not giving owners a fighting chance to find lost pets was just one of the concerns discussed in the report. These include the policy of euthanizing German shepherds "on the purported grounds that they are dangerous," while at the same time not hiring people qualified enough to determine whether a dog is a German shepherd in the first place. Here's another: BARC did not allow its strongest volunteer base, "Friends of BARC," to work inside the shelter, but only to transport pets. According to the Mayor's task force report, BARC says its relationship with the Friends has been "adversarial." (This policy appears to have been eliminated after the report was released.) Or another: "a severe shortage of veterinary services at BARC for any purpose, including for routine spaying and neutering."
The report also addressed measures that needed to be taken to increase public awareness of the need to spay and neuter pets, how to better team up with rescue groups, and increase other public outreach programs. Those were the components Mayor Bill White addressed in his response to the report — and here's one reason why, per his response: "The report should be shared with the animal welfare community, because the solutions recommended by the task force reach well beyond the scope of the city's resources, and will require support from all sectors."
There you have it: It was simply "beyond the scope of the city's resources" to fire any idiot who can't tell a German shepherd from a Chihuahua; it's "beyond the scope of the city's resources" to make sure shelter employees know how to operate the software that tracks the animals they tend to; and it was completely "beyond the scope of the city's resources" to allow the strongest volunteer base to actually set foot inside the shelter.
According to those in the "animal welfare community" who spoke to the Houston Press for the story, here's what BARC has done since the publishing of the report: Exactly nothing.
Two members of the "animal welfare community" who actually served on the task force told the Press they believed the mayor dreamed up the special committee solely as a way to momentarily pacify his biggest critics. But any parent knows they can only keep a toddler occupied with a shiny object for so long. Pretty soon, the "animal welfare community" got all hot and bothered when they saw that the task force was only lip service. (However, the committee report wasn't the only BARC review issued in November 2005. That same month, City Controller Annise Parker released the results of a performance audit she had requested on the shelter. See "System Failure" for a summary of the results.)
Four months after the report, a BARC vet tech named Michelle Haberland sent letters to White, City Council members and Stephen Williams, head of the Health and Human Services Department, pointing out additional concerns.
She never heard back, which is not surprising: She wasn't sticking to the rules. And the rules were: The mayor already went through the pageantry of a task force. That task force pointed out the problems. It turns out the problems were "beyond the scope of the city's resources." Now shut up.
But unlike the mayor, Haberland had actually set foot inside the Great Dome. Actually, she did it on a daily basis for quite a while, and she couldn't shut up about what she saw: Smaller animals were able to crawl into kennel drains. Once there, they'd either die, thus blocking the sewage system, or they'd get caked in shit and get sick. Sometimes, they'd wash clear away into one of the other kennels. "I witnessed two of these incidents, and I immediately reported them to my superior," Haberland wrote in her 2006 letter.
Haberland also suggested there might be a better way to clean the cages other than when the animals were still inside. The animals were being sprayed with a combination of cold water and chlorinated disinfectant. This gave some of the animals skin problems, and it also meant anyone who adopted an animal might be exposed to the chemical as well.
She also brought up the radical notion of making sure cage doors actually closed. Unsecured cages allowed for escaping animals, which might not be a huge deal, but, you see, the facility's doors were sometimes left open because, you see, even though BARC has such a beguiling dome that is the envy of the free world, the ventilation is horrible.
"I bring these matters up in the spirit of cooperation, and with an offer of volunteer citizen assistance to work towards remedy and change," Haberland wrote.
In speaking with the Press two years later, Haberland is more blunt.
"I've met with Stephen Williams on numerous occasions, and he could give a rat's ass about BARC," she said. "He could care less. It is a thorn in his side, and that's it. And he'll dance and perform a dog-and-pony show until people shut up, and then he'll go on his merry way and do whatever he wants."
And it of course doesn't stop there, she said.
"We have a city council and a mayor that does not care about BARC," she said, citing one time Bill White got up and walked out of the meeting while she addressed the council in 2006. "The day that I spoke, Michael Berry was on City Council at that time, he stayed on his BlackBerry and his cell phone the entire time that myself and one other person spoke about BARC. White left — he was gone. Three or four of the city council people weren't even present to begin with, and the rest of them chatted among themselves while we spoke. So nothing will ever get changed under those conditions."
Of course, Haberland didn't last too long at BARC. She soon found out what former volunteers told the Press: When you ask for change, you're asked to leave.
The one big result of the task force's report was the hiring of a new BARC director, Kent Robertson, who was wooed away from his position as Dallas's Animal Service Manager. So what did hiring Robertson do for the City of Houston's animal shelter? Here's a hint: Kent Robertson is once again Dallas's Animal Service Manager.
Robertson was emblematic of the change Mayor White declared he was for. A respected shelter director, Robertson had achieved success in Dallas, and many in Houston felt he could replicate that success here.
In his two years as BARC director starting in 2006, Robertson's biggest legacy appears to have been the hiring of a woman named Eunice Ohashiegbula-Iwunze as the shelter's chief veterinarian. Robertson did not return the Press's calls, so it's unclear where exactly he found her, but it's quite possible this epiphany occurred while he was flipping through a copy of Vets Who Couldn't Hack It in Other Cities Monthly. In a two-year span, Dr. Ohashiegbula-Iwunze racked up two separate findings of "gross incompetence" by the New Jersey Veterinary Board of Medical Examiners. One of the findings, which resulted in a license suspension, had to do with the accidental killing of three pets at her clinic. (She was also reprimanded for poor record-keeping, which, come to think of it, actually makes her the perfect BARC employee.)
When Kelly Cripe, a longtime animal welfare advocate, caught wind of "Dr. O's" record, she addressed the mayor and city council members at a council meeting earlier this month.
Cripe, a spokeswoman for Continental Airlines, had served on the BARC task force but is now persona non grata, thanks to her subsequent public criticism of the report and of the mayor specifically. To Cripe, and other advocates who spoke to the Press, Bill White is the one person who could most effectively implement change at the shelter.
And Cripe made this belief abundantly clear in her public remarks, in which she said that she and others keep bringing up the same problems with BARC and the city keeps looking the other way. But a funny thing happens when you continually tell local media that you believe elected officials aren't pulling their weight and you actually name those officials: No one on the City Council asks to extend your time limit during the public input session.
So when the two-minute buzzer went off before Cripe finished her prepared remarks, she wasn't asked to stick around. There was only uncomfortable silence. And then there was Bill White, who thanked Cripe for her input. He couldn't have been any clearer had he actually said anything.
Margaret Gondo, the next animal advocate in line, had more success, perhaps because she hasn't been as vocal a critic. She got some good responses, like this from Councilwoman Ann Clutterbuck: "How many more years are we going to sit here silently?"
White's remarks seemed to explain why Gondo got further than Cripe: "The public servants [at] this table, to a person, want to do their jobs diligently...if people can talk with each other and not about each other, then it makes elected officials" more willing to talk. (Like Cripe, Gondo was also a task force member. She was also a BARC volunteer, but was asked to resign her services because she had on at least one occasion remained on the grounds past the volunteer deadline of 6 p.m. If there is one thing BARC officials seem to hate, it's when people who sacrifice their time to care for animals at no cost to the city stay past 6 p.m. It's an unconscionable offense. In a memo from then-Manager Vincent Medley to Gondo, Medley warns that "Your vehicle must be out of the gate at 5:50 p.m. every day. Your disregard for the volunteer hours is the reason this action has become necessary.")
And this quote, which she gave the Press, probably won't help her reception next time she approaches City Council: "Most of the things that the Bill White administration [has] tried to do are basically window-dressing — things to make it look like everything is great on the outside."
Which isn't to say White didn't have a point about talking nice: If elected officials aren't willing to talk over such trivial matters as "city and state law," they certainly aren't going to respond to allegations of incompetence. Which is why, when Gondo alleged that BARC vet David Rundell may have worked for eight years without a state-issued controlled substances registration, the city immediately asked for a Department of Public Safety investigation.
Apparently, asking a state agency to investigate what is an easily provable matter is a lot easier than asking Rundell himself. That way, the investigation focuses on only one person — the target — rather than his superiors, who knew or should have known their subordinate was willfully breaking the law.
When the Press asked Kathy Barton if anyone from the city had asked Rundell directly if he's been consistently registered with the state, Barton first responded in an e-mail, not with a "yes" or "no," but with the following: "The Texas Code 481.062 allows Dr. Rundell to prescribe ketamine and other scheduled drugs under Dr. O's DEA license and supervision. Fatal-Plus [a solution used in euthanasia] can be used by Dr. Rundell under the shelter's license."
In three words, Barton's response — which she said was furnished by BARC's interim director, Barbera McGill — was not true. Veterinarians in Texas need a Department of Public Safety registration to handle controlled substances.
In a later conversation, Barton told the Press that, actually, Ohashiegbula-Iwunze asked Rundell if he was registered prior to December 22, 2008.
"According to Dr. O, he was not," Barton said.
The Press also asked Barton to ask Health and Human Services Department Director Stephen Williams if he was aware of Rundell ever suggesting that he would be a whistle-blower. Williams replied in an e-mail: "No."
So here's what we have:
• The head of the city's Health and Human Services Department unaware that, in an official report, one of his employees threatened to be a whistleblower by accusing another BARC vet of falsifying city records
• The interim head of BARC unaware that vets at the shelter require a state-issued controlled substances registration
• The city pound's chief veterinarian, twice reprimanded for gross incompetence in another state, unable to determine whether one of her subordinates had been operating in violation of state law for eight years.
And here's what else we have: According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, Rundell operated without proper registration between December 1991 and August 1999; and from March 3, 2001, to December 22, 2008. For 15 years, Rundell violated state law while maintaining city employment. That leaves two excuses for the folks who ran the Health and Human Services Department during that time-span: incompetence or indifference. But solving either of these, apparently, is "beyond the scope of the city's resources."
Here's what Frank Michel, White's spokesman, told us about the mayor's commitment to BARC: "He's commented on it repeatedly...[It's] not true that the mayor's not interested. He's asked his senior leadership in that department to help resolve this. We increased the budget. We brought in new management — of course, that didn't work out, [the] gentleman left. But he's asked Stephen Williams and the people in charge in that department to help resolve this as quickly as possible. But as he said before, it's going to take a community solution, and just throwing money at it is not going to be the only answer."
So there you have it. Mayor White has asked the man who has continually demonstrated a lack of awareness of what's going on at BARC to resolve things. Things should be better any minute now.
In August 2006, Nathan Winograd, a national advocate for "no-kill" shelters and the former director of the Tompkins County (New York) SPCA, gave a two-day seminar in The Woodlands. More than 100 no-kill advocates from seven states attended the seminar, which was sponsored by The Woodlands Dog Park Club.
One person paying close attention was Tim Holifield, a Montgomery County constable and the head of that county's animal shelter. He had heard about Winograd's success with other shelters, and he was eager to implement Winograd's no-kill components. The shelter had already started this by creating a low-cost spay/neuter clinic, which resulted in the alteration of more than 1,700 animals in the first year. Holifield was especially excited about reaching out to even more volunteers, telling the Houston Chronicle, "These guys are heroes. They have reduced the number of animals that are euthanized."
By Houston standards, it was mind-boggling: Here was a public official actually seeking outside input and thanking volunteers and foster parents instead of just making sure they didn't set foot inside the shelter.
Since Winograd was already in town, he offered to conduct a free assessment of BARC. Kent Robertson, who was BARC's director at the time, declined the offer.
Fast-forward two years, and the city once again found itself speaking with Winograd, only this time things seemed more promising. By December 2008, the only sticking point seemed to be the city's insistence that Winograd release it from all liability. In an e-mail to city personnel handling the terms of his contract, Winograd wrote: "Given that the contract value is only $5,000, I cannot agree to indemnification clauses."
Meanwhile, Barton told the media that state law did not allow cities to waive liability for contractors.
Barton neglected to mention another condition the city wanted, though, which Winograd explained to the Press: "Part of the things that they had included in their contract negotiations with me was: When I could talk to the press [and] what I can say to the press...So there's still an element of wanting to limit transparency and sort of control the information that gets out there. That to me is not evidence of really embracing reform and change."
Overall, Winograd said, "I've worked with dozens of municipalities over the years and have never quite encountered the bureaucratic inertia and hurdles that the City of Houston wanted me to jump through."
This didn't mean the city didn't have their feelers out, though. During negotiations, Benjamin Hernandez, chief of staff of Health and Human Services, called Abigail Smith, the current director of the Tompkins County SPCA, to get an idea of what exactly becoming "no-kill" would involve.
"I said, 'Don't jump off the edge of a cliff," Smith said. "You're going to need a lot of money. You're going to need a phenomenal facility. You're going to need huge community buy-in. You're going to need a ton of foster homes. And you're going to need a bunch of vets that are going to donate services to you.'"
That right there was probably enough to make BARC shudder.
But if the city wanted to decline Winograd again, it could have made a reasonable argument about Winograd's real track record, rather than trying to get him to sign a contract requiring prior restraint.
Winograd has carved out a sort of legend regarding his ascent to the top of the no-kill movement, which is perhaps best reflected in a 2006 Reader's Digest story, which begins: "When Nathan Winograd announced that he was leaving his posh job as a corporate lawyer in Marin County, California, to run an animal shelter in Tompkins County, New York, his father looked at him for a long minute. Then he said, 'What the heck do dogs and cats need a lawyer for?'" The story includes a picture of the noble Winograd walking along a beach with his dogs, Mr. Picklechips and Sir Topham Hat.
And in the bio for Redemption, Winograd is described as "both a former criminal prosecutor and corporate attorney." He has also described himself as "Director of Operations" for the San Francisco SPCA, perhaps the first major shelter to successfully implement the no-kill philosophy.
In truth, Winograd's law career was brief, according to the California State Bar, which shows that he held an active license for six years. He had stints as a prosecutor in Riverside and Marin counties (California) and was then a contract associate for a corporate firm between February 15, 2001, and May 15, 2001.
And in October 2008, a reporter for the Austin Chronicle was the first to shed light on his true capacity at the San Francisco SPCA. Reporter Patty Ruland checked with Winograd's former boss, Ed Sayres (now the head of the ASPCA), who explained that Winograd held the position of Director of Operations for a week and a half before resigning.
Ruland quickly learned what happens to those who dare ask questions about Winograd's claims: They are summarily scorned. Before Ruland's story ran, Winograd blasted her on his blog, accusing her of asking "inflammatory and defamatory" questions.
Winograd regularly criticizes anyone who does not swallow his no-kill philosophy — no matter how much experience they have in the world of animal control and welfare. For example, Kate Hurley, a veterinarian who teaches shelter medicine at the University of California-Davis Veterinary School, has a "pro-killing agenda" because she has suggested that some no-kill shelters have simply warehoused animals.
And just a few days after Winograd spoke with the Press, he blogged about how this paper's line of questioning was based solely on the claims of one of his most vocal critics, a private citizen with the audacity to disagree with Winograd.
Under the heading "A Smear Campaign," Winograd wrote: "The line of questioning was based on the rumor and innuendo of No Kill detractors like Pat Dunaway in order to undermine my efforts and maintain a policy of killing in our shelters. No lie is too grand and no contradiction too obvious for them."
Winograd apparently believes a reporter can't ask tough questions of him based on simple Google searches or interviews with other sources. No, it is the work of the ubiquitous Pat Dunaway, a California woman who has criticized Winograd on various shelter-related blogs. Winograd has also accused Dunaway of being behind the Austin Chronicle's critical story.
In Winograd's mind, Dunaway's trespasses are so severe that he devoted an entire blog post to attacking her personally, accusing her of using false names when feeding lies to gullible reporters. Morally, Winograd has placed Dunaway on the same level as the heads of the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States, who are alternately described as defeatists shackled by institutional complacency and malevolent demagogues who get off on killing perfectly healthy, squeaky-clean puppies.
Winograd's brand of no-kill is based on the belief that animal overpopulation is a myth. Theoretically, he writes, we could be "a no-kill nation tomorrow." It's because of this certainty that Winograd was actually able to include in his book a list of the types of people who will disagree with his arguments, why they will mistakenly disagree with those arguments and why they are therefore dumb people.
One of his favorite arguments is that the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States — the big, evil moneymaking machines — put the onus of animal welfare on the public. In Winograd's world, there is virtually no irresponsible public; it's all a smokescreen for incompetent shelter directors who are perpetually set to "kill." One wonders what Winograd might make of a trip down what local animal advocates call the "Corridor of Cruelty" along Little York, where backyard breeders sit in un-air-conditioned, bombed-out former convenience stores, peddling crates of unaltered puppies struggling to catch a breeze from a floor fan.
Perhaps it's because Winograd has had the good fortune not to have actually worked at an animal shelter for longer than three years. Which is not to say he's incapable of greatness.
Winograd truly loves animals — perhaps a little too much. (One of his accomplishments as director of the Tompkins County SPCA was to create a space for owners and their dogs to get side-by-side massages, an event he once described in an interview as "romantic." Winograd is also in favor of trapping, neutering and releasing feral cats with feline HIV.) But it's this intense love of animals that has made him able to energize those around him. In Tompkins County, he built an impressive army of volunteers and spearheaded a series of public awareness campaigns that increased spay/neuter rates and foster homes while drastically reducing euthanasia rates.
Of course, he had some help. Tompkins County is home to Cornell University, which runs one of the best vet schools in the country. One of Cornell's alums is David Duffield, founder of Maddie's Fund, one of the largest philanthropical foundations in the country devoted to animal care. A lot of Duffield money flowed into the Tompkins County SPCA. (Also, the Tompkins County SPCA takes in around 3,000 animals a year, about one-seventh the volume of BARC.)
Winograd told the Press he left Tompkins County in order to move his family back to California to be close to his wife's dying father. Four years after his departure, the Tompkins County SPCA is struggling with what many other shelters are facing in this economic crisis — a spike in animals. This is coupled with the fact that, for years, the shelter had been dipping into reserves and using donations to help subsidize its animal control contracts with surrounding municipalities. Until the current director, Abigail Smith, came along, no shelter director wanted to address the fact that the shelter's municipal animal-control contracts were not covering costs: In 2002, for example, the average national cost for animal control was $4-$6 per capita. But Tompkins County residents were paying $1.76. That meant the shelter had to subsidize the difference with money in its reserves, and from donations. A 2007 article in the Ithaca Journal quoted Smith as saying, "We've depleted million-dollar reserves over the last ten years."
Because he's not a director, Winograd never has to wrestle with bureaucracy, or shifting economic cycles, or state mandates. He can make suggestions based on extremely limited experience and then simply blame any subsequent failings on poor management. Sweet work if you can get it.
"Mr. Robertson, it is extremely unpleasant to have to expose a colleague," Gil Costas wrote then-BARC Director Kent Robertson in his complaint of Rundell's euthanization of Albert.
"However, not reporting these facts would constitute an act of complicity on my part. I have an ethical obligation to inform you. More often than not, employees at BARC tend to not want to be involved. There have been examples in the past where the messenger ends up suffering the consequences. What I am reporting is based on real facts. There is no room for 'spinning' or 'excusing' this type of behavior. There is no room for interpretation. Unnecessarily and willfully prolonging the suffering of a patient constitutes an act of 'cruelty.'"
Reading Costas's complaint, it becomes easier to understand why Robertson wanted to return to Dallas, and easier to understand why Robertson didn't want to talk to the Press. Houston's animal shelter isn't his problem anymore.
In fact, BARC doesn't seem to be anyone's problem, except for the animals who live the last weeks, days and hours of their lives there. Right now, the best thing is to imagine that it's an anomaly that a sick dog at BARC might have to wait for hours on a cold concrete floor before it can be put out of its misery. Right now, the best we can do is hope for change. It's kind of like hoping your truck's air-conditioning unit is working and that the dogs in your car aren't slowly suffocating. You know it should work. You know the people in charge should have these things checked.
So in the meantime, the only thing you can do — the only thing Houstonians can do — is eat your lunch and hope that by the time you wipe the crumbs from your mouth, the dogs are still alive in order that they can be killed.
Taking BARC to task
November 2005 was a tough time for BARC. Not only did the Mayor's Task Force on Animal Control issue a critical assessment of BARC's failures, City Controller Annise Parker released the results of a performance audit of the facility. (The entire audit can be found on the Office of the Controller's Web site, www.houstontx.gov/controller/.)
Findings included the following:
• Widespread employee dissatisfaction with compensation and lack of training
• A computer network that allowed any employee who logged in to have access to "all information in the database, including cash and accounting information"; furthermore, "all case activities can be updated by any employee without restriction and there are no tracking records of access, except for the first and last entries."
• A nine-month backlog of pending low-priority dispatch calls — low priority including "animals in traps; injured or sick animals."
• "Continuing education is not offered to ACO's (animal control officers) to maintain certification status."
• "New ACO's are trained by inexperienced officers."
• "Some ACO's have not received training to use tranquilizer guns."
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• "Favoritism is practiced among staff and supervisors."
Parker told the Houston Press that while the city has made some improvements to BARC, it has historically been a low budget priority. During her stint on City Council, she said, "We didn't really do anything to change how we look at animal control in the city of Houston, and really didn't invest in top-quality personnel."
Parker was a proponent of bringing "no-kill" expert Nathan Winograd in for an assessment of the facility.
"When it comes down to it, at some point, you have to stop the animals coming in on the front end, which means a major financial and community-awareness investment in spaying and neutering," she said. "And then you have to change it on the back end, in better treatment of the animals that you have and better programs for adoptions, and that piece of it really costs money. And we haven't wanted to make the investment." — Craig Malisow